The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
JULY, 2000 - VOLUME 8 NO.7

Moles in the Movement?

When Burma’s state-owned press announced recently that eleven "expatriate destructive elements" had been arrested in May and June for allegedly plotting a bomb attack on the Thai embassy in Rangoon, nobody, including officials in Thailand, took the charges seriously. Most suspected that the news of a purported conspiracy to discredit the country’s ruling military junta and damage Thai-Burmese relations was little more than an attempt to ratchet up tensions between Burmese exiles and their Thai hosts ahead of a meeting of regional foreign ministers in Bangkok. But, according to opposition sources in Thailand, the story goes deeper than that.

The ringleader of the supposed plot, one Ko Oo (alias Myo Oo), has apparently been an object of suspicion for some time—but more on the Thai side of the border than in Burma. Myo Oo, a former member of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF) who was arrested and imprisoned in Moulmein for about two years in the early 1990s, frequently entered Thailand following his release to meet with exiled opposition leaders. Though never entirely trusted, he managed to make contact with a number of dissidents active both inside Burma and in exile. Returning to the Thai border town of Mae Sot on May 22 of this year, he declared that the imminent tenth anniversary of elections held on May 27, 1990 would be an important date for the pro-democracy movement. Then, after it was learned on May 28 that many of his contacts inside Burma had been arrested in Rangoon and Pegu, 80 km north of the capital, he mysteriously disappeared. Dissidents say that he slipped across the border to Myawaddy and later contacted another person in Mae Sot. Analysts suspect his arrest is a ruse to deflect suspicion.

Activists who knew Myo Oo said that it was likely he had been working together with other moles. The high-profile defection last year of Khin Than, director of the ABSDF’s documentation committee, is now being seen by many as a possible instance of successful infiltration. According to this theory, Khin Than did not surrender to Rangoon, but simply returned to Burma upon completion of his missio.

Yaa Baa Finding New Users

Methamphetamines, or yaa baa, as the latest scourge of Thai society is known locally, are claiming new victims amongst the country’s huge Burmese refugee and migrant communities, according to numerous sources.

The use of drugs among groups normally too impoverished to afford them is the result of both political and economic circumstances, say observers. Thai army intelligence sources claim that yaa baa is becoming an increasingly important part of the arsenal of weapons being used against Karen refugees by the pro-Rangoon Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, a group opposed to the mainstream Karen National Union. Most Karen refugees in Thailand are considered sympathetic to the KNU, and camps housing the estimated 100,000 plus refugees have come under repeated cross-border attacks from DKBA troops under Burmese command.

Yaa baa is being made available by dealers for as little as 30 baht (less than one dollar) per tablet. There are also reports

that employers on some Thai-owned farms are manufacturing their own yaa baa as a method of payment for refugees and migrant workers, who are said to receive two speed pills for a day’s labor.

According to Dr Cynthia Maung, who runs a clinic for refugees near the Thai-Burma border, domestic violence related to yaa baa use has been on the rise recently. Dr Cynthia, who treats patients from both sides of the border, says that workers at illegal saw mills inside Karen State are also becoming regular users of the drug. Other users include workers at garment factories run by Thai or foreign businessmen, who are sometimes suspected of spiking drinks with speed to increase productivity.

"We don’t stop working until midnight," complained one Burmese garment worker in Mae Sot, adding that she often felt wired and had trouble sleeping.

 Democratic Elite Only, Please

The recent revelation that Australia’s aversion to Burmese pro-democracy activists is almost as strong as that of Burma’s military junta was hardly news to asylum seekers accustomed to dealing with immigration officials at the Australian Embassy in Bangkok. Treatment there is "terrible," say student exiles, who complain that since last year’s Burmese Embassy siege, they have been required to wait outside the embassy compound when coming for asylum interviews or applying for visas.

Such moves by Australian officials to distance themselves from rank-and-file members of the democratic opposition may go beyond security concerns, however. In 1997, the embassy refused to issue visas to Burmese students hoping to attend a diplomacy training program; but two years ago, Canberra granted traveling documents to about a dozen self-appointed ministers-in-exile. Some have seen this as evidence that the Australian government, a would-be regional leader that has recently undertaken a human rights training program in Burma, is less interested in defending any particular set of principles than in influencing those it perceives to be movers and shakers. All others, it would seem, are best advised to leave their political ambitions behind.

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